SPRING HILL — Bob and Betty Atwood sat on a love seat in their apartment last week, a tiny, twinkling Christmas tree perched on a nearby table above piles of wrapped gifts.
Betty rested her left hand on her husband's right knee. A Norman Rockwell portrait of two young lovers she cross-stitched three decades ago hung on the wall above their heads.
In a few days, they'd celebrate their 75th Christmas together, 72 of them as a married couple.
They'd stayed together through the Great Depression and a second world war, worked hard to raise two children. Now they were here, in a tidy fourth-floor apartment at Atria Evergreen Woods.
He is 93; she's a year younger. They look back on all those Christmases and marvel.
"We've had lots of sadness and so much happiness," Betty said, grabbing Bob's hand. "We've had the most wonderful life that anybody could have."
Bob and Betty had poverty in common when they met in 1935 at Newark High School in Ohio.
Betty Calland was born in Zanesville, Ohio, the eighth of 10 children. Her dad cut tile; her mom tended to all the kids.
"We didn't know we were poor," Betty recalls. "We were a happy family."
Christmas mornings at the Calland house were simple affairs. The best stuff, like candy and navel oranges, came in their stockings.
When Betty was 12, just a couple of weeks before Christmas, a drunk driver smashed into the car she was riding in with her parents, brother and sister. Her mother, Eleanore, was killed.
Betty eventually wound up living with her brother in Newark. Her father contracted respiratory disease from tile dust and died on Dec. 26, 1950. Betty was 31.
"He didn't want to die on Christmas," she said.
Bob was the youngest of five kids. His dad worked as a carpenter; his mother cleaned houses. The family never had a Christmas tree or stockings and got "simple things" for gifts. Bob can't remember any of them.
"As soon as we got up," he said, "we went to the neighbors' to see what they got."
Betty drew a bead on Bob at Newark High and penned a note to land him. If Bob handed over one of his class pictures, Betty wrote, she would keep it forever.
"And she'd put a chain around it," Bob said, recalling the rest of the note.
Bob eventually asked her on a date. He didn't have a car, so they walked to the movie theater to see One Night of Love, the story of an aspiring opera singer who moves to Italy and falls in love with her teacher, a famous maestro.
They went out about once a week after that, often to another theater where Bob worked as an usher. Bob had already seen the film during his shifts, but he could get in for free and pay Betty's 10-cent ticket.
She was a quiet, petite beauty with brown hair and green eyes. She looked up to Bob, who stood 5-foot-7.
"She didn't talk as much as she does now," he says, and they both laugh.
He was fastidious and kind, an Eagle Scout.
"To this day, he is exactly the same," Betty said. "He is always thinking of the other person, more so than himself."
They dated for 31/2 years, an eternity in those days. He saved $75 for a gold and diamond engagement ring and gave it to her while riding in the back seat of a friend's car on the way to an ice cream social. They eloped to Kentucky in his brother's Oldsmobile and were married by a justice of the peace on June 4, 1939. He was 20; she was 19.
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They spent their first Christmas as a married couple in a rented house in Newark. Bob was working at Ohio Power as an accounting clerk, then joined the Marines in 1942.
He spent the next three Christmases away, in San Diego, Guadalcanal and New Hebrides, an island chain in the South Pacific. He was at Camp Lejeune when their first daughter, Anne Lindsay, was born, but made it to the hospital in time to hold her there.
Bob was honorably discharged as a master gunnery sergeant in 1945, and the couple's second daughter, Karen Sue, was born a couple of years later. The family moved to Maryland when Bob got a job in employee relations at the Pentagon and then, later, as a war planning officer and congressional liaison.
The family attended the Methodist church every Sunday. As parents, Bob and Betty were firm but generous, their daughters recalled.
"No meant no," said Anne Lindsay, 66, of Brookridge. "You didn't question it."
For years, having daughters two years apart meant giving two of everything come Christmas morning. Two bicycles, two baby buggies, and one year Bob crafted two doll cradles from wood. The girls shared Twinkle, a terrier puppy given to them one Christmas Eve.
"Christmas was always for us girls," Karen Sue, 64, of Bradenton, recalled. "They made it a happy event, even though we didn't have much money."
With Bob rising in the ranks and Betty working as a bookkeeper, they eventually started to earn enough to treat the family to things they never had. A console television. An organ for Betty. A golf bag for him.
As a Christmas present in 1962, Anne Lindsay recalls, Bob and Betty told the girls that the family was moving to Hawaii for Bob's new job assignment. The annual tradition of buying a live tree for Christmas made way for a white aluminum, artificial tree illuminated by two spinning color wheels. The girls said Mele Kalikimaka instead of Merry Christmas and spent their first Christmas swimming in the blue-green waters at Kailua Beach.
In 1966, Bob and Betty woke up to their first Christmas as empty nesters and spent the day playing golf. Two years later, Bob spent the holiday in Vietnam during a yearlong civilian assignment. He retired in 1973.
They beamed as their daughters walked down the aisle, suffered when both of Anne Lindsay's sons died of birth defects before the age of 2 and rejoiced when Karen had their grandson, David.
They moved to Sarasota, back to Hawaii and then to Ohio again before settling in Brookridge in 1997. After eight years there and a couple more in Ohio, they moved to Evergreen Woods.
Their apartment overlooks the putting green Bob uses often. He is president of the residents association, and they both serve as ambassadors to welcome and guide new residents. Betty's had three surgeries on her knee and uses a walker, but otherwise they enjoy good health.
Christmas morning with the family hasn't changed.
"We're grown now, but Mother still feels we need gifts to unwrap," Anne Lindsay said.
Bob and Betty get the question a lot. How do you make it last for seven decades?
"I tell them I bite my tongue a lot," he says, and they both laugh.
"And I tell them you have to be happy," she says. "You can't be a sad person. We've never, ever been off terms in 72 years."
"We've had arguments, disagreements, but nothing serious," he says.
The long courtship helped, they say.
"I think so many people don't know one another well enough to know how to get along through the sadness," she says.
Sometimes, when Betty gets down because her leg is bothering her, Bob tries to cheer her up by reminding her of something she already knows.
"Think back the to the times we've had," he says. "There are people who would give their right arms to have the life that we have."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]